The quiet brilliance of Judy Blume
Thank you, Judy Blume.
Without Judy — yes, I've read enough of her books to feel like we're on a first-name basis — generations of young readers would never have been introduced to Margaret, Fudge, Deenie, or Sally. None of these characters were extraordinary beings like the stars of today's YA books — Margaret never had to go out and kill other kids for sport, Fudge wasn't a vampire or a werewolf, and he certainly didn't sparkle — and that's why they've always resonated with readers. They were just normal kids — our friends, our siblings, ourselves.
Judy has the rare ability to really get inside a character, making her stories so authentic they don't feel like fiction. It's incredible how she picks up on the little things that take place in life, the things that are so everyday that you forget they even happen, but once she inserts them into a story, you wonder how you can take those moments for granted. You lose yourself in her books. You never have to stop and ask yourself, "Is this how a teenage girl worried about not growing up as fast as her friends really feels?" You don't second guess what the characters say, or how they react to things. You completely and totally trust every single one of them because you know they are true.
Judy knows what her readers want out of her characters. If you're going to write about a seventh-grade girl in a book for seventh-grade girls, you'd better dive all the way in, having her try her best to navigate the complex world of middle school — figuring out friendships that can change overnight, handling expectations from parents, worrying about everything from her weight to having braces, and dealing with crushes.
When you read a Judy Blume book as a kid, it's like having your own personal counselor, sex ed teacher, and trusted adult that you can ask anything, all rolled into one — your questions about all the weird stuff you're going through are always answered, and she never makes you feel ashamed about being curious. Instead of having to wait until health class to learn about the changes boys go through, you just had to pick up a copy of Then Again, Maybe I Won't. I can only imagine how many completely clueless young people Judy has helped get through puberty, just by writing about things that most 12-year-olds are way too embarrassed to ask their parents about.
The first Judy Blume book I read was Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. I was probably around eight or nine — old enough to grasp most of the content, but still too young to totally get it. I read a tattered copy that belonged to my older sisters, and it was chock full of things that any girl my age would find thrilling: Kissing boys at parties, chants of "I must, I must, I must increase my bust!", stuffing bras with cotton balls, and family drama about religion (OK, maybe only I found that part thrilling). It also left me with a few questions that I was not about to ask my mother, like, "What the heck is a sanitary belt?" It was the mid-1990s, and I really should have been reading an updated copy.
From there, I moved on to Just As Long As We're Together, Here's to You, Rachel Robinson, and eventually (once I was almost old enough), Forever. When it comes to Forever, all you have to do is whisper the word "Ralph," and it conjures up... well, read the book and you'll know what it conjures up.
Although Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret was my first Judy Blume book, and Forever was definitely the most memorable, Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself was my favorite. Sally may have been a young Jewish girl transplanted from New Jersey to Miami after World War II, but we had a lot in common, specifically overactive imaginations. Sally convinced herself that Mr. Zavodsky, an old man in the neighborhood, was actually Adolf Hitler in disguise, and that's totally something I would have done as a child (except update Hitler to a more modern horrible person). The adventures Sally had inside her head — from becoming a movie star to going back in time to rescue her aunt and cousin during the Holocaust — entertained me then, and they'd still entertain me now, too.
Judy Blume fans are lucky. Even when we grow up, there's plenty to read. She's written adult books like Wifey and Summer Sisters (both of which I read long before I was an actual adult), and in June, the newest characters to join the Judy Blume Universe were introduced in her latest book, In the Unlikely Event. It's based on actual incidents that took place while Judy was growing up in New Jersey during the 1950s, when airplanes would just fall out of the sky, and terrified residents had no idea if the accidents were caused by something as sinister as a Communist plot or as unbelievable as aliens. It's classic Judy: Teenager Miri Ammerman falls in love, loses a best friend, and makes a shocking discovery about her mother, all while dealing with the unexplained — and traumatizing — plane crashes.
While doing press for the book, Judy mentioned that it took five years for her to finish In the Unlikely Event, and the process was "painful." She told Jessica Gelt of the Houston Chronicle that the book is her "farewell. Not in any bad sense of the word. I've just decided it really is."
It's hard to imagine not ever having another new Judy Blume book to crack open. Who's going to fill her shoes? Who else will write about growing up and friendships and being disappointed by the people that you love the way that Judy did? Who else can write for all ages with accuracy and respect for readers?
I know, I know, after all these years, Judy is entitled to retire. But while I may be rational enough to understand that she deserves a break, I am also extremely sentimental and hate saying goodbye. I'm not ready to let go of a link from my childhood to the present just yet.
As a longtime fan, I feel like I owe Judy about a million thank yous. Thank you for writing honestly. Thank you for keeping me amused on long drives and plane rides. Thank you for knowing you'd face a backlash, but being brave and writing Forever anyway. Thank you for Sally's imagination. Thank you for remembering how hard it is sometimes to be a kid. Most of all, thank you for being able to capture the joy, the fear, the excitement, and the wonder that comes along with being alive.